While Oklahoma State University Extension county offices have adopted social distancing safeguards, their ability to help process soil samples has remained largely unhindered by the COVID-19 mandates.
Extension personnel have gotten creative.
“I get at least three to four phone calls a day asking if we are still taking samples and inquiring about our procedures given the pandemic,” Oklahoma County Extension Director LaDonna Hines said. “Our office set up a drop box where soil samples and accompanying information are deposited, allowing contactless delivery.”
It is impossible to provide an accurate fertilizer recommendation without an accurate, timely soil test, which is why many Oklahomans in rural and urban settings rely on OSU Extension to take the guesswork out of their crop, pasture, gardening or lawncare needs. Apply too little and soil and plants suffer; too much and runoff can occur, possibly leading to environmental problems.
In Oklahoma County, a member of the Extension office picks up deposited samples several times a week. Customers are called by phone to take payments and record additional details as needed. The customer information sheet is forwarded to Josh Campbell, the county office’s agricultural educator, and the soil samples are sent to OSU’s Soil, Water and Forage Analytical Laboratory. He checks with the OSU lab daily to verify which samples have been tested and maintain as speedy a process as possible.
“Once I have the test results, I add my comments and suggestions as usual, attach my signature using Adobe Acrobat software and email the sample results and recommendations to the client,” Campbell said. “Those who have questions then email me or speak with me by phone. We’ve been averaging about 175 samples per month, which is about normal.”
The Oklahoma County Extension Office can process credit card payments, which makes dropping off soil samples and paying for test results even easier for clients.
The Choctaw County Extension Office likewise has experienced little change in the number of soil samples processed. Although the office is not set up for credit card payments, staff has worked around that problem, too.
“We prefer checks, which are passed to us through a glass partition, much the same as people are used to doing at banks,” Choctaw County Extension Director Marty Montague said. “It’s been pretty much business as usual except that we’ve only been open to the public a couple of days during the week.”
Montague said he has also made use of social media to share information that local farmers, ranchers, homeowners and landowners may find useful – for example, if a significant number of soil samples from across the county are showing a lack of nitrogen. Information spurs action.
“Guessing about additives often means too little or too much fertilizer gets added, which is not only detrimental to soil and plant health but also wastes money,” Montague said.
Cleveland County Extension Agricultural Educator Bradley Secraw said the Norman-based office has been doing things similarly to what is happening throughout the OSU Extension county office system. However, Cleveland County Extension sends invoices to clients rather than asking them to leave payment.
“It has definitely been a team effort to minimize any delay in service and most clientele have been very understanding of changes to our procedures given social distancing mandates from the city and state,” Secraw said. “We try to have one person in the office at a time and there is a sign with instructions for contacting us posted on the door. Some of our educators have even shared their personal cell phone numbers.”
Garfield County Extension Director Rick Nelson was among those who set up a drop box at the county office. Given the many benefits of soil sampling, Nelson said it really is an investment and not a cost, and an affordable one at that.
“We start with the routine test, which costs about $10. The OSU lab retains soil samples for 90 days, so it’s easy enough for us call the lab and facilitate more specific tests depending on individual producer or homeowner decisions,” he said. “Basically, people only pay for what they need.”
Grady County Extension Director Liz Taylor said county clientele have said they like the drop box method so much that she may make it permanent.
“We will be putting signs out for people to come in and visit, once social distancing mandates allow us to open back up to the public,” Taylor said. “However, the drop box method allows people to bring by samples whenever it is most convenient to them and not have to worry about office hours. Now that is service.”
For more information about soil sampling and other research-based agronomic and horticultural best management practices access OSU Extension fact sheets online. Also available online are video segments about soil sampling and similar beneficial agricultural practices, produced as part of OSU Extension’s award-winning agricultural television program SUNUP.
OSU Extension is one of two state agencies administered by the university’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and is a key part of OSU’s state and federally mandated teaching, research and Extension land-grant mission.